Sunday, July 16, 2017

Military preparedness and World War One. Training the boys. Scenes from July 16, 1917

 Bayonet Drill.

At one time the concept of boys and girls "going to camp" was so common that it was kind of a running joke.  

Kids still go to camp, of course, but its increasingly rare and more and more specialized.  The old concept of kids attending Camp Winnemucca, or whatever, that was the brunt of so many jokes, songs, bad movies, and even annual Peanuts threads is increasingly uncommon. Not that they don't exist, of course, they do.   I know of a lot of kids and teenagers going to camps this year, but most of them are athletic camps.  One is going to the big Boy Scout Jamboree.  Some went to out of state language camps.

 Drill and Ceremony.  It hasn't changed much.

One of the types of camps that boys attended back in the day, and of course still do, are those associated with Scouting.  The Boy Scouts was practically brand new at the time of World War One, having had its U.S. expression started in 1910.  It's interesting to see those old photos of Boy Scouts at this time a they very much reflect the military scouting origin of the organization formed by Lord Baden Powell, whose Boer War experience had lead him to worry that British youth were getting soft.  Formed during the "Muscular Christianity" era, Scouting rose very rapidly and had very widespread membership, emphasizing woods craft and manly virtues.

But these boys aren't in the Boy Scouts.  No, they're receiving military training at a summer military training camp for boys at Peekskill, New York. The camp was organized by the New York State Military Training Commission, an organization established by the New York legislature in 1916 in order to "more thoroughly and comprehensively" boys "the duties and obligations of citizenship."  Part of its mission was to establish state military camps of instruction for annual summer field training for the boys.

 This is something that wasn't unique.

 Nope, not much at all.

The Great War sparked a huge national movement towards preparedness, and not just in the Boy Scout motto "Always Be Prepared" vein.  Republican elements urged the US to enter the war early on and when the US did not, those who backed entry into the war sponsored military training camps for young men.  Men in their 20s and 30s, that is.  These camps were staffed by Regular Officers of the U.S. Army and sought to train men to serve as Army officers should the need arise, which it was suspected that it might.  The most famous of these was at Plattsburg, New York, but it wasn't the only one by any means.  And they weren't limited to men.  Prior to the country's entry into the war there were also camps for women, teaching them field craft and some military skills, such as the use of semaphore flags, skills that would prove to be more militaristic than they'd actually need for service in the Great War given the roles they were given.
 Playing the dread, and stupid, mumbly peg knife game.  Note the hat cords on their M1911 Campaign hats.  I wish this was in color so we could get the branch designation.

And by 1916, the Preparedness Movement, having seen the war in Europe spread to Asia and having seen a semi war break out along the border with Mexico, spread to teenage boys.

The Reserve Officer Training Corps was established in 1916 under the National Defense Act of 1916.  With two expressions, ROTC and JrROTC it covered young men in their high school and college ages.  ROTC, the college aged version, sought to train college men to serve as officers should the need arise.  JrROTC, in contrast, sought to teach high school aged boys basic military skills that would give them a jump in serving as enlisted men in the Army, should that need arise.

 July.  Its hot.

The story of JrROTC has remained a confused one, and somewhat under addressed, for years.  One thing about it is that the 1916 start of it in some ways picked up what was already going on.  In some schools, including the one I graduated from in 1981, an organization like JrROTC was already in place.  You can find, for example, photographs of Natrona County High School boys drilling in uniform in 1915, a year prior to the creation of JrROTC, and the school now boast the oldest surviving JrROTC unit in the United States.  I note that here as I don't think the kids in these photographs are in JrROTC (some might have been, or would soon be), but rather a military organization run by the State of New York that was really darned close to it.  Indeed New York's Military Commission was given broad authority to organize the military instruction of youth during its brief existence (it ceased to exist in 1921).  It basically ran what was JrROTC in New York, which was so extensive that its authority extended to young men who were employed outside of schools, ie., who had dropped out.  In Wyoming JrROTC took off so fast that in 1916 there were state drill competitions between different JrROTC unis across the state.  It was a big deal.

Semaphore signals remained a necessary military skill at the time.

In our kinder and gentler age, JrROTC has undergone quite a century long evolution and so have events like this. When I was in high school JrROTC did have a summer encampment at the National Guard's Camp Guernsey.  Now, I was never in JrROTC and when I was in high school in the late 1970s and early 1980s "Rotcey" didn't have a lot of general student body respect.  The program had gone from being a mandatory one for boys, dating back to at least 1915, to an elective one in around 1976, and even those who had some concept of serving in the military were a bit leery about it.  It was classified as a physical education class, perhaps justifiably, but that meant it was filled with an odd combination of boys who knew that they were entering the service with certainty and those seeking to avoid PE.  Anyhow, the only time I ran across them in their summer camp was when I was a National Guardsmen working at the Armory who went to Guernsey about this time of year, after we'd already done our Annual Training.  We tended not to be impressed if, for no other reason, the uniform liberties they were given meant that they were sporting a lot of late Vietnam War type uniforms and berets and the like, prior to any of that being uniform gear in the Army itself.

Anyhow, over its century of existance JrROTC has undergone quite a transformation.  I guess all organizations for boys have.  In 1917, such as during the same period when these July 16, 1917 photographs were taken, it was real military training with real gear.  The boys doing bayonet drills up above aren't using weapons at all, but still, they're learning to kill in a pretty up close and personal way.  In the 1930s and 1940s I know that the local school drilled with M1917 Enfields and the rifle team, which was excellent, competed across state lines using M1903 Springfields.  In the 1970s it became an elective here but I can still recall their having a few M14 rifles for demonstration purposes and a collection of M1 Garands for the drill team.  Girls came in at some point (I'm not sure when) and now I'm told that the rifle team uses air rifles. When I was in high school the rifle team used .22 target rifles, which are at least a real rifle.  Not that air rifles don't have their virtues, they do.

Anyhow, this group of boys was spending part of their summer at a military camp at Peekskill, New York.  While I know that a person isn't supposed to think such things, I suspect it was fun.  A lot more fun that serving in the Great War itself, which definitely wasn't fun.

But I bet they were glad to get back home.

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